Harvard Hackathon Sparks Healthcare AI, Digital Innovation

More than 500 individuals around the globe spent two days coming up with innovative ideas to address healthcare challenges at a hackathon organized at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health by the Health Systems Innovation Lab.

The hackathon, which was held April 5–6, 2024, was focused on promoting an environment that would allow participants to use artificial intelligence and digital health to develop solutions to improve healthcare in the areas of mental health, cancer, cardiovascular illnesses and diabetes.

The hackathon drew participants from more than 30 countries to various hubs globally, including Santiago, Chile; Kyiv, Ukraine; Buenos Aires, Argentina; London, the United Kingdom; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Boston, United States; Lima and other cities in Peru.

Those who took part in the event include postdocs, young professionals and students.

The event kicked off with a panel moderated by Professor Rifat Atun, director of the Health Systems Innovation Lab. Panelists shared insights on the latest trends in the use of digital solutions and artificial intelligence in healthcare and how innovations could be sustained or scaled up in this scene.

Once the opening panel was done, the hackathon was officially launched. Throughout the two-day event, the teams received support from online as well as in-person mentors.

On Day 2, every team was required to present their ideas to panels of judges at every location, with a winner being chosen per track. One winning team from Boston, which focused on mental health, proposed an artificial intelligence bot dubbed Sam.io to assist mental health patients adhere to their medication via personalized follow-up care.

According to Mariel Sander, one of the team’s members, low adherence to medications among mental-health patients occurs for many reasons, including distrust of physicians, poor health literacy, and side effects of drugs. The bot would converse with patients through text as well as over the phone and understand patient emotions from their language and voice.

Another winning team from Boston focused on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, coming up with a solution they called SweetAudio. They designed the machine-learning model to analyze variables in the human voice such as intensity or pitch in order to estimate levels of blood sugar. Hein Thu, one of the team members, explained that blood-sugar levels could affect the elasticity of the vocal cords and larynx, noting that chronic diabetes could lead to muscle weakness and diseases that could in turn bring about voice disorders.

The winning teams have been invited to take part in a bootcamp as they prepare to pitch their ideas to an international panel next month. Winners of the next event shall be invited to join the lab’s six-month Venture Incubation Program to advance their innovations. The program will provide online help from entrepreneurial and academic partners to the winners.

Many of the solutions developed will require built-to-purpose hardware systems and entities such as International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) is working on to avail the needed software and hardware components to actualize the dreams of those who are focused on making the world better in different aspects, such as health.

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